Monday, July 21, 2014

In Brazil a new India met a new China. Will there be a new pragmatism leading to peace on the border?

What a pity there was no independent reporting from Brazil about our Prime Minister's meeting with China's President. We can comfort ourselves by assuming that it was a subtle diplomatic ploy to impress China. After all, China's leaders have always communicated to their people exclusively through Xinhua, the official news agency. Now Narendra Modi has communicated to us exclusively through PTI. At last we are equal to China.

But let's set that aside. Let's set aside, too, cockles-warmers like India becoming the first President of the new BRICS bank. The great reality that surfaced in Brazil is that Modi has a historical opportunity to end the boundary problem with China. Two factors point to this. First, China respects strong leaders and it knows that Modi is so strong that not a mouse will move in Delhi without his say-so. Secondly, the border problem can never be solved without India repudiating some of Jawaharlal Nehru's actions; the Congress governments could not possibly do this while Modi probably can.

In the past emotionalism seized our Parliament, the media and public opinion to such an extent that the country as a whole lost its sense of direction. We never faced the fact that, historically, there was no agreed border pact between India and China. In the West the Aksaichin-Ladakh area was so barren ("not a blade of grass grows there", as Nehru famously put it) that no one in India knew that China had built a road across it. In the more contentious eastern sector, India swore by the McMahon Line, which was a line drawn by a British officer and then approved at a meeting in 1914 by British-Indian and Tibetan governments; China was not a participant.

The position Chinese Prime Minister Chou en-lai initially adopted was a reasonable one. Where negotiations were required to confirm a presumed boundary, he said, negotiations must be held so that a new treaty could be signed between equals in place of one imposed by old imperial overlords. In the case of the McMahon Line, according to published reports, Chou even told Nehru that China would not use the negotiations to change the boundary line. We failed to take advantage of that golden opportunity. When Chou visited Delhi in 1960 Home Minister Gobind Vallabh Pant spoke to him patronisingly, Finance Minister Morarji Desai insultingly. Nehru could not even keep India's dealings with China on a dignified level. When China moved to absorb Tibet as a piece of its sovereign territory, Nehru agreed without bargaining for an overall boundary agreement.

Post-Chou China adopted a more belligerent tone. In recent years it has been noticeably confrontationist in its approach to Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. Along the Himalayas there have been regular "incidents" in the border posts. Much of this is attributed to hawkish military leaders at policy-making levels.

China will never yield in its ambition to be the unchallenged regional power in Asia and then the unchallenged world superpower. To that extent it will always be a difficult customer, no matter who is at the helm, emperors or communists. But the Chinese are also history's most pragmatic people. They are natural businessmen, at ease running massive shipping corporations or tiny kirana stores. Like Gujaratis.

This is where two minds can meet. If Narendra Modi is strong in India, Xi Jinping is China's most powerful leader since Deng Hsiao-ping, combining in himself several posts including military overlordship. Both are decision-makers. Both are good at the game of politics. So Modi will quickly recognise why, even as Xinhua was reporting the Modi-Xi meeting at length and with warmth, China's border patrol in Ladakh staged an intrusion trick or two. Once he learns how to call this standard bluff, the rest will be easy.

Xi's words in Brazil suggest that he has already developed the view that cooperation with a friendly India will benefit China economically and diplomatically while posing no threat to it politically or militarily. "If the two countries speak in one voice," said Xi, "the whole world will attentively listen". It should be easy for Modi to show that if the two countries speak in one voice, business will boom for both. But, unlike Xi, Modi will have to carry the people with him. Government leaders in India have never told the people the real story of the border mess. If Modi continues that style of functioning, he will not score the way Xi might. Brazil reporting notwithstanding, we are not equal to China, thank heavens.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Thiruvalluvar has changed to Gundappa. That apart, new UPA is like old BJP, new BJP like old UPA

Every BJP voice praised the budget. Every Congress voice rubbished it. So what's new? We sometimes get the feeling that nothing changes in Delhi. Those of us who insist on seeing change can indeed find it. Government staff now reach office on time, like the trains famously ran on time some time ago. P. Chidambaram quoted from Thiruvalluvar in his budget speech; Sadananda Gowda quoted from G.V. Gundappa -- that's change. Arun Jaitley quoted from nobody -- that too is change. In substance, however, politics remain unchanged and unchanging.The Congress in opposition behaves exactly like the BJP in opposition behaved. The BJP in power behaves exactly like the Congress in power did.

The similarities range from rowdyism to appointments to policy positions. It was natural for the Congress to oppose the railway budget. But look at the way they did it. A posse of party activists tore off the Railway Minister's nameboard from the gate of his house and one MP trampled on it, patriotically. This was after the first day's session of the Lok Sabha was repeatedly adjourned following Congress-led mayhem. About this time last year (August to be precise), what was dubbed as "BJP hooliganism" had led to repeated adjournments of both houses of Parliament. An entire session of the last Parliament was demolished by protesting BJP members. The Congress has begun to return the compliment, making it clear that the choice before the people is between hooliganism and hooliganism.

The railway budget itself was a demonstration of the new Government being indistinguishable from the old one. BJP's senior leaders justified the steep pre-budget increase in rail rates by saying that they were merely implementing rates that had been worked out by the previous Government. Was the new Government elected to implement the decisions of the old? Ministers would have won more goodwill if they had admitted the truth -- that power has its own compulsions; you are free as a bird when in opposition, but your hands are tied when you are in government.

No one knows this better than Arun Jaitley. As the most respected voice of the opposition, he had demanded that the Henderson-Brooks report on India's 1962 China war be made public. But now, as the most respected voice of the Government, he had to announce that declassifying the report would be against the national interest. Opinions may differ on that. Books have already revealed details of the horrible bungles and ego clashes that led to India's Himalayan humiliation. But we have to grant Jaitley the right to reverse gear now that he is the Defence Minister.

Turn to operational imperatives and we again see similarities between the Gandhi era and the Modi era. Concentration of power in one central authority was the mantra then, it is the mantra now. Indira Gandhi turned stenographers and family retainers into rulers of India because they were implicitly loyal to her. Sonia Gandhi appointed a family favourite as the Principal Secretary in the PMO over the Prime Minister's own choice. Narendra Modi used the ordinance route (his Government's first ordinance) to get his handpicked officer as Principal Secretary.

Modi has not gone -- and perhaps will never go -- to the extent that Indira Gandhi went to subjugate the Supreme Court. But his sidelining of Gopal Subramaniam, nominated by the Supreme Court collegium for elevation to the bench, invited a strongly worded warning from the Chief Justice of India. Subramaniam was the amicus curiae whose reports led to the Supreme Court transferring the Sohrabuddin fake encounter murder case from the Gujarat police to the CBI. And the CBI investigation led to the arrest of Amit Shah, then Gujarat's Minister of State for Home. Three lawyers had argued on behalf of the Gujarat Government in that case. All three have now been given Government appointments -- as Attorney General, Solicitor General and Additional Solicitor General. A lawyer who represented Amit Shah in the cases has since been recommended for elevation by the SC collegium itself. Wonders never cease.

Interestingly, criticism of the Government in such matters has elicited response only from lower levels of the BJP leadership, the top remaining deafeningly silent. This, too, is reminiscent of the Congress policy of brazening out on issues that matter to the establishment. Remember the likes of Ottavio Quattrochi and Robert Vadra? It looks like parties may come and parties may go, but the people remain where they are. Perhaps it's time to dissolve the people and elect a new set.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Minority appeasement, a game that helps no minority. But it can cut up the country into communal bits

A. K. Antony is a politician who never ruffles a feather. His style is to speak through silences and to act through suspended animation. But suddenly he ruffled every feather in every party with a seemingly simple statement: That appeasing minorities for political gains has helped communal forces to grow. Shock waves spread across the political spectrum. The rush of protests, embarrassments and rationalisations showed that there was some truth in Antony's words. Truth hurts.

The Congress leader from Kerala was referring primarily to his party and his state. But all across the country, and for a long time, parties have been wooing religious and caste groups with special sops for winning their votes. Leaders like Mayawati and Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh have built their empires of power on such votebank bargainings. The Congress under Rajiv Gandhi took the gimmick to absurd levels. It opened the locked gates of the Babri Masjid in order to please orthodox Hindus. Then in subverted a Supreme Court judgment to please orthodox Muslims. (The Court had ruled in favour of Shahbanu, a woman illegally divorced by her husband. The Congress Government changed the law to satisfy outraged Muslim males).

Even the ideologues of the Left bowed to the presumed electoral compulsion of pleasing minorities. It was E.M.S. Namboodiripad who helped create the new district of Malappuram to please the Muslims in Kerala. In the 2011 election campaign in West Bengal, the Left offered 10 percent reservations for Muslims in government jobs and government colleges besides a string of other sops. The Trinamool Congress campaigned to raise the status of Urdu and to increase the salaries of imams. The Congress-led Maharashtra Government recently extended special reservations to Muslims and Marathas, with Sharad Pawar warmly supporting the move. The BJP itself has been cultivating sections of Muslims to show that it is even-handed. But it carries little conviction because of continuing hate speeches and hate crimes by hardcore Hindutva elements.

So Antony was raising an issue that was all-pervasive in our democracy. It cut deep because a leader from the minority segment (though not a believer) was himself criticising the appeasement of minorities. Besides, anyone could see that the policy helped neither the minorities nor the democracy in the name of which the appeasement was done. Virtually all the rights and concessions given to the minorities were appropriated by the leaders of the minority groups leaving the ordinary masses high and dry. The continuing educational and economic backwardness of the Muslim masses is a case in point; even Haj facilities provided by the Government were manipulated by community leaders for their private benefit as published reports have proved. Sops given to Dalit communities have benefited Dalit leaders more than Dalit masses. Many Christian leaders have unashamedly used the minority tag to turn their schools and colleges into high-yield commercial enterprises.

This is a negation of not only the concept of minority rights but of democracy itself. In his thesis about the cyclical nature of political systems, Aristotle argued that monarchy led to tyranny which led to oligarchy which led to constitutionalism which led to mobocracy which led to dictatorship which was the same as monarchy, starting the cycle all over again. Except that he did not use the term mobocracy; he used democracy instead. Aristotle saw democracy as mobocracy. It was left to India to prove how right he was.

The crux of Antony's statement should worry us -- that minority appeasement leads to the growth of communal forces. The best example is his own state where pampered Christian parties and the Muslim League have become unhealthy influences in politics. Significant segments of Christians and Muslims in literate Kerala are unhappy with the way wily politicians use religion for personal gain. The main wirepuller in the League, P.K. Kunjalikutty, a survivor of several scandals, once refused to light an oil lamp at a public function citing religious reasons. Contrast this with burqa-clad Muslim women in Varanasi sending a rakhi to "Brother Modi". Lighting the lamp is a beautiful Indian custom while rakhi tying is more of a Hindu practice. In keeping with Kunjalikutty's idea of demonstrative Islam as distinct from Islam as faith, the Muslim League Education Minister in Kerala recently ordered the black board in a government school to be painted green. Communal forces can not only grow, they can grow stupid.

In the end, though, those who condemn minority appeasement must also condemn the equally dangerous majority appeasement. Who dare ruffle those feathers?

Monday, June 30, 2014

Why this haste for policies that can wait? Like Hindi. Who is pushing agendas that divide the people?

The Prime Minister complains that he did not get a honeymoon period of even a hundred hours. True. But why? For so careful and calculating a political leader, he allowed too many crisis points to develop in his very first days in office. Like the unconscionable railway rates hike before a finger was lifted to improve safety standards or food hygiene on board. The intensity of public protests rattled the mighty Government; it put off plans to increase gas and kerosene prices. More disturbing than this onslaught on aam aadmis' pockets are the communal crimes that surface in isolated areas. The impression has spread that some agenda is at work, perhaps without government backing but without government disapproval either. The haste with which disruptionist policies are being pushed suggests that the forces behind the agendas are too dogmatic to care about the consequences.

The sudden announcement enforcing Hindi in all dealings by and with the Union Government is a case in point. This must be clearly separated from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decision to use Hindi at his international meetings. That is a welcome move. If the Japanese and the Russians and the Chinese and the Cubans and the Brazilians speak in their language at summit meetings, there is no reason why the Indians should not. Let Modi speak in Hindi to Xi Jinping because Xi will speak in Mandarin; both are fluent enough in English but both will find their native languages easier for the free flow of thought.

But it is a very different matter when an Indian with roots in Hindi is put above an Indian with roots in another language. That is discrimination pure and simple. Institutionalised discrimination is precisely what the Home Ministry has turned into policy by instructing officials to use only Hindi in social media, address Ministers only in Hindi and write notings in files only in Hindi. Obviously this will give native Hindi-speakers a huge advantage over others. A senior government secretary with good working knowledge of Hindi will be overtaken by a junior colleague whose upbringing has been in Hindi. Employment and promotion opportunities will go up for Hindi people and down for others.To put it simply, the Government move on Hindi is divisive.

India is the world's only multilingual democracy where language divides people instead of uniting them. This is the result of a parochial mindset incapable of understanding the benefits of multilinguism and multiculturalism. Otherwise the political class would have seen how wisely other countries deal with the problem. Switzerland with a population of just 7 million (Bangalore has more than 10 million) gives official status to German, Italian, French and Romansh, all enjoying constitutionally guaranteed equality of status. No chauvinist in one language region attempts oneupmanship over others. Indeed, Switzerland sustains a credible national identity because of its unifying multilingual policy. In Canada English dominance gave way in the 1960s to accommodate the rights of 20 percent Canadians whose mother tongue was French. Today the two-language culture is inspiring more and more Canadians to take to French as a second window to the world.

Asia holds the best lessons for the language zealots of India. Little Singapore has four official languages, Tamil and English receiving as much attention as Chinese and Malay. Big China has a dozen different languages (they are called dialects, but are mutually unintelligible). They are unified, however, by a common script. Mandarin, the official language, has been getting standardised into Putonghua to benefit all regions. Vietnam had a unifying roman script introduced by 17th century missionaries. Nationalist social reformers of the 19th century popularised the diacritic-filled "foreign" script, ensuring one language in effect for all the people.

It is Indonesia's example that stands out. This sprawling chain of islands has 706 "living" languages of which 347 are active and flourishing, compared to our 22 scheduled ones. Java being the most populous island, the Javanese language was the dominant one with its own Arabic script. It was easy, even natural, for the early freedom fighters to adopt Javanese as the official language of the Republic of Indonesia. But they took a conscious decision not to do so. In order to ensure that all citizens had equal opportunities in the new country, they developed a standardised Bahasa Indonesia based on Malay. What's more, they abandoned Javanese script and adopted roman instead. Language was effectively used to weld Indonesia's scattered islands into a nation.

We boast of our civilisation, but we do not act in civilised ways.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Iraq is not just a Sunni-Shia clash; It's a challenge fundamentalist Wahabism is posing to the world

The dimensions of the Iraq crisis began hitting us only when Indian workers were kidnapped and Indian nurses stranded. There is also an awareness now about possible economic disaster if oil prices go crazy. These are grave issues and we must exert every nerve tackling them. But the big danger Iraq poses is ideological. A militant religious force is on a conquering spree and India will be among its prime targets.

Other versions of this religious force were frightening enough. Al-Qaida, conceived by one of the world's richest men, Osama bin Laden, was stridently ideological. Calling on Muslim countries to shed all foreign influences, it proclaimed the goal of creating a worldwide Islamic caliphate based on a rigorous version of the Shariat law. Al-Qaida's call for a global jihad was taken up by other organisations that came in its wake, most noticeably the Taliban. In and around Afghanistan Taliban unleashed barbaric practices. Today even Pakistan has turned against it despite their early collaboration. Following the recent suicide attack on Karachi airport, Pakistan's air force has been bombing the country's frontier regions where Taliban fighters are entrenched.

The sudden eruption of fighting in Iraq is the latest extension of the global-jihad ideology. Because it is Iraq, it is easy to say that the war is yet another showdown between Sunnis and Shias; Iraq is the only Muslim country where the rival factions are almost equal in numbers, Shias having an edge of one or two percentage points over Sunnis. Saddam Husain, the President whom America hanged, was a Sunni. Nouri al-Maliki, present Prime Minister America enthroned, is a Shia. Ironically, the US came up last week with the suggestion that al-Maliki must make way for a Sunni for the sake of peace. The Prime Minister promptly rejected the idea.

It was a woolly-headed idea anyway. Just as America never understood Vietnam despite many years of war, it has not understood Iraq despite the vainglorious Bush War. Those who learn nothing from their mistakes are condemned to repeat them. There is indeed a bloody Sunni-Shia rivalry for dominance in Iraq. Why was this not contained like the bloody Catholic-Protestant rivalry for dominance in Northern Ireland? Both Irish factions received support from influential Western powers; neither was seen in adversarial colours. In West Asia, the US and its allies isolated Iran as an adversary and embraced Saudi Arabia as an ally. That was an error of judgment.

Saudi Arabia's ruling elite has been globally promoting a fanatic ideology, Wahabism, which rejects even non-Wahabi Muslims as un-Islamic. It's like Pentecostal Christians rejecting traditional Churches as un-Christian. (Perhaps both can learn from Hinduism's uniqueness; Hindus can reject all their gods and still remain Hindus). Shia Iran condemns Sunni Wahabism as a threat to Islamic civilisation. But Shias have their own strains of rigidity. Their central belief is that the 12th Imam, the Mahdi, will come to establish a global Islamic caliphate. The way to hasten the Mahdi's coming is to annihilate Israel, the Little Satan. (The Great Satan is the US).

Iran's vehement opposition to Israel is the main reason for the US to see it in inimical terms. But Iran does not have an evangelical programme spread around the world to convert people to its ideology. That is Saudi Arabia's area of attention. Western condonation has enabled an ideological and far-reaching Wahabi campaign to gain speed, spread fundamentalism in Muslim as well as other countries and elevate jihadism as a religious duty. The campaign is visibly successful in previously tolerant Islamic countries like Malaysia and Indonesia and in various parts of India. The US has not yet got the message. So the radicalisation of Islam proceeds unchallenged to the detriment of others including non-fundamentalist Muslims.

India too sees Saudi Arabia as an honoured ally. This is as it should be. But it would be a mistake to ignore the fact that radical Islamist evangelism is strong in India. This is new in a tradition that saw Islamic scholars, artists and musicians contributing immensely to the cultural growth of India, and continue to do so. The extremists ignore this rich past and focus on narrow partisan issues. Partition itself is held against India. The demolition of Babri Masjid provoked the spirit of revenge among many fundamentalists abroad. They must have been incensed by the BJP coming to power in India, especially under a Prime Minister whom they hold guilty for the 2002 Gujarat riots. Wahabi victory in Iraq may well fire them into renewed action.